Is it faith or conceit?

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)

“. . . for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7 NASB)

I am going to define conceit by making a silly comparison: bags of pretzels. When you walk down the snacks aisle, bags of potato chips are generally opaque. Bags of pretzels are clear with the brand name on color-block panels. You can see what’s inside.

And what you usually see is a bag that is 2/3 product and 1/3 air. If you happen to walk by when the merchandisers are restocking you may see them plump the bags like the maids at the Holiday Inn Express plump your pillows.

Decades of reading packages that display net weight and disclaimers about settling during shipment, etc. have conditioned us to accept bags that are 1/3 empty as normal. It’s like prices that end in .99; $2.99 somehow makes us lower our resistance when $3.00 sounds like it’s too much.

A conceited person has an inflated view of herself, imagining she possesses more substance, ability or capacity than she actually has. If we pin our hopes on someone like that, sooner or later we’ll be disappointed. In citing qualifications for elders, Paul excludes the recent convert, “or he may become conceited” (1 Tim 3:6). Giving someone a title can go to their heads and quickly outstrip their maturity and capacity to lead God’s people.

But what about faith? As the verses above suggest, faith is a placeholder for something not seen. Or at least not seen yet. If you do a side-by-side comparison, various English translations define faith in Heb 11:1 as the confidence, assurance, reality, substance, certainty even the title-deed of things we don’t see.

But if faith can be the assurance of something intangible or unseen, it can be as hollow as conceit for its confidence in something that doesn’t exist. Some schools of thought place greater emphasis on the quantity of the believer’s faith. You hear some say, I’m believing God for. . . or, Do you have faith for . . .? or, You of little faith.

But faith in what? Do we merely fill in the blank with what we want or need as if writing a check? You can’t write checks on God’s account just because you’re his daughter or son. They’ll bounce.

Faith is founded on the word of God—its general commands or specific applications prompted by the Holy Spirit. In its origins it is not self-generated.

So, for example, we cannot will the distribution of particular spiritual gifts to ourselves or others. This is the prerogative of the Spirit of God, “distributing to each one individually just as He wills (1 Cor 12:11). Our faith rests on respecting those boundaries; we believe He will give gifts, and He does, but as He wills. The sovereign choice is His.

About 40 years ago, I attended a missions conference sponsored by the national student ministry that had a chapter at my university. I was a senior at the time. The final plenary session featured the evangelist Billy Graham.

He told the story of a handful of believers in a Communist country (this was 1979) captured and interrogated, then ordered to renounce their faith. Some did, and were summarily shot, the interrogator explaining that if they so easily surrendered their faith they would repudiate Communism just as easily.

But one young woman refused. Her life was spared. Graham then asked for a response. If you would stand firm in your faith as she did, please stand up where you’re seated.

I was 22, converted at 19 as a college freshman. Since then I had soaked up every teaching and training opportunity the student ministry had to offer. I felt confident, so I stood up. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

And then, a moment later, I felt like two invisible hands were firmly pressing down on my shoulders. When I recognized what was happening, I stopped resisting and sat down. And I was so embarrassed and ashamed I just stared at the floor.

At the time, I wanted to avoid thinking about this. But looking back 41 years, my impulse to stand was fed by an absurdly conceited view of my faith. When it came to going against the grain, even in much less dire circumstances than that faced by that lone believer, I was a very weak individual. Who was I kidding besides myself?

Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, you cannot make the blanket statement I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Phil 4:13). For example, if you look at the master’s distribution of talents (or bags of gold, NIV) in that parable (Mt 25:14-30), he gave them differing amounts “each according to his ability” (v. 15).

It was then reasonable for the master to expect a return from “each according to his ability.” And the one-talent servant was therefore wrong to complain that the master was “a hard man,” as if he were expecting a five-talent return on a one-talent investment. The master distinguished the servants’ abilities; he didn’t make hard, unreasonable demands.

The one-talent servant lacked faith, but his unbelief stemmed from completely ignoring the overflowing generosity and provision of the master. A single talent was 20 years’ wages for a laborer. Surely he could have done something with that besides burying it. And to call the master “a hard man” was not just absurd but the harshest insult imaginable.

But how does “ability” work in tandem with faith? For some reason, believers can disconnect this natural pairing when it is much more effective working together. Experience in the faith matters just as much in the church as experience matters in the job market.

King David as a young man confronted Goliath and felled him with his sling. It’s often assumed it was a providentially accurate shot. But David prepared for this moment, though he may have never foreseen this particular battle.

David was the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, and he was shuttling back and forth between Bethlehem, where he was tending his family’s sheep, and the field where the two armies were encamped.

When David heard Goliath’s threats, he took strong exception. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam 17:26)

But Eliab, David’s oldest brother, got angry because he saw David as boasting. “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle” (1 Sam 17:28)

But David cited his experience as a shepherd. “Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear,” he told King Saul. So his faith (to confront Goliath, something unknown to him) was based on experience (successfully protecting the flock from predators).

With no cell phone to occupy his idle time, David had to find something productive to do during all those lonely hours. He probably took hundreds of shots with his sling to hone his skill, much like a would-be basketball starter shoots endless free throws at the gym. It’s not denigrating God’s deliverance to say that David had become a good shot.

He coupled ability with faith through months and perhaps years of experience. He may have appeared conceited to his older brother, but David came to the battle already armed with ability—and impelled by faith that the Lord would deliver his enemy into his hands.

As he said confidently, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands” (1 Sam 17:47).

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